Towering above the parvis that shares its name, the medieval wonder that is Notre Dame Cathedral is an edifice to behold. Simultaneously immense and delicate, this masterpiece of stone evokes details imprinted on our subconscious: stories of gargoyles and hunchbacks, tolling bells and dancing gypsy girls… The legends are palpable as you approach the immense stone façade.
Notre Dame Cathedral: A Gothic Marvel
Begin your visit with a tour of the cathedral’s exterior. The three vaulted archways that stand before you are home to some of the only original stonework on the façade; much of it was destroyed during the French Revolution and replaced during a 19th century renovation. The iconic statues in the Gallery of Kings, presiding over the entrances, were beheaded by revolutionaries, convinced that they depicted early French monarchs. The original heads of these kings – who were, in reality, the kings of the Old Testament – were uncovered by chance during construction work in the 1970s and are now on display at the Cluny Museum.
All around the exterior of the cathedral, flying buttresses protrude from the apse. These stone structures, which give the cathedral its creepy, shadowy allure at dusk, help the thin walls to remain standing, supporting most of the weight of the vast cathedral. Without them, it would surely crumble.
It is thanks to these medieval architectural marvels that the magnificent stained glass windows inside could be installed. Be sure to pause before the impressive rose windows at either end of the transept. The third rose window, at the west end of the cathedral, is unfortunately mostly obscured by the great organ.
If you feel up to it, finish your visit of Notre Dame by climbing its north tower, where you can see the famous gargoyles and demons up close. The breathtaking view from the top offers panoramas of the square below and the rooftops over the Seine. Be sure that you’re feeling up to the hike: nearly 400 steps await you before reaching the top!
Want to unlock more secrets of the world’s most famous cathedral, have a look at our guided tour.
Discover Notre Dame Cathedral
The modern cathedral is actually quite different from the medieval original. After the revolutionary period, the cathedral was greatly damaged and had fallen into disrepair. The now-towering cathedral was largely obscured by a marketplace, and Napoleon III considered tearing it down. Luckily, Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre Dame de Paris, brought the medieval marvel back into the hearts and minds of Parisians, and in the 19th century, architect Viollet-le-Duc was given the task of restoring the cathedral to its original beauty.
He took several liberties in his modifications of the façade and in his construction of the central tower, surrounded by statues of the 12 apostles and the 4 evangelists. Viollet-le-Duc had his own face placed on that of “doubting” Saint Thomas, looking up at the tower that he built, his face filled with a combination of skepticism and wonder.
If you visited Notre Dame some time ago, you may remember a blackened façade, with years of pollution and dirt upon it. A cleaning project, undertaken in the 90s, restored the stone’s natural whiteness. To take advantage of a particularly special atmosphere, discover Notre Dame during the Christmas holidays, when one of Paris’s most beautiful nativities is installed inside, drawing people from all over the world to this majestic place of worship, legend and history.
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